May 1863. A small group of Rebel soldiers, tired after a day of plundering in the remote wilderness settlements along the Big South Fork River, settled down for a night’s rest in a cabin they had commandeered — not realizing that night’s sleep would be their last. Even as they slept, the Confederates’ fate was being sewn up. Outside, members of the Scott County Home Guard had slipped in under the cover of darkness and surrounded the cabin.
What followed was perhaps Scott County’s most talked-about fight of the Civil War — except it wasn’t so much a fight as a massacre. Nearly every Rebel guerrilla who had taken part in the Big South Fork raids was killed inside the cabin or drowned in the rain-swollen river while attempting to escape, as the Home Guard won a resounding victory that finally began to turn the tide against the guerrilla warfare that had dominated Scott County for more than a year.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be said with certainty about that fight, other than it began with a raid by Confederate guerrillas, and ended with the deaths of many of the guerrillas. It seems that every historian who has written about the skirmish told the story a little bit differently.
Many Scott Countians have long referred to it as the Battle of No Business. The National Park Service, which now controls the area where the battle occurred, as part of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, calls it the Duck Shoals Skirmish, named for the small rapids on the river just downstream from where the fight occurred. And still others have called it the Battle of Parch Corn. No matter what it’s called, it is an incident that has fascinated Scott Countians for generations, becoming a part of this community’s lore, and a defining story of the Civil War in this region.
This is the story of the Scott County Home Guard’s greatest triumph.
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Maybe it was Capt. James Rule who led the Confederate guerrillas into No Business that early summer day in 1863. Maybe it was Capt. Alec Evans. Among all the things historians disagree on, the commander of the Rebel outfit ranks near the top.
Both Rule and Evans were guerrilla leaders from Kentucky who made forays into Tennessee. Rule, in particular, had made a habit of taking raiding parties into the remote settlements west of the Big South Fork River. Historian H. Clay Smith, in “Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past,” identifies Rule as the man who was in charge that night.
But the New York Times, writing just weeks after the fight, reported that it was Evans. Houston Blevins, who grew up on Parch Corn Creek and was the son of one of the men whose farm was attacked that night, wrote in a letter to the Knoxville Journal in 1948 that it was Evans.
Either way, a group of Rebel guerrillas descended on the remote river settlements that day. They would not leave the river gorge alive.
Smith placed the number of guerrillas in the outfit at 11. The New York Times said 28. Blevins — who was born William Houston Blevins in 1869 and was known as Huse — said 26.
It seems that the Rebels attacked several farmsteads between No Business Creek and Station Camp Creek — which is located about five miles upstream from No Business. They raided the home of “Aunt Polly” Miller — Blevins wrote that they stole her mare while they were there — and may have raided two others before taking shelter for the night at the home of Jonathan Burke.
Smith wrote in “Dusty Bits” that the Rebels raided the farm of Armstead Blevins on Parch Corn Creek. It’s interesting to note that Houston Blevins doesn’t make mention of that in his 1948 letter to the Knoxville Journal. While Blevins would not be born for several years yet, Armstead Blevins was his father.
Smith’s account of the No Business incident is particularly colorful, and contains a number of details that the New York Times account and Blevins’ account do not.
Smith wrote that the Rebels captured two Union soldiers during their foray — Till Slagel and Hudson Burke. The guerrillas intended to hang them, but both men managed to escape, Smith said. He also wrote that the guerrillas captured his grandfather, Jackson Smith, who was a member of the Home Guard, after Slagel and Burke escaped. Smith might have been hanged, too, but Polly Miller convinced them to set him free.
It was sometime later that the Rebels holed up at the Burke home, which was located about halfway between where Parch Corn and No Business creeks empty into the Big South Fork River.
Whether or not Slagel and Burke were actually captured by the Rebel soldiers, everyone agrees that Burke — called “Hutts” or “Hutt” — was one of the members of the Home Guard who would attack the guerrillas that night.
Hutts Burke was the son of Allen Burke and the nephew of Jonathan Burke. It was at his uncle’s home that the Confederates stopped for the night.
Historical accounts of the location of the No Business fight typically state that the cabin was owned by Peter Burke, and are accompanied by a photo of the cabin that was taken in 1901. However, the cabin was actually owned by Jonathan Burke. Peter Burke was living with his parents in 1863. His wife, Susan Milligan, had died by that point, leaving him single.
Additionally, the picture of the cabin from 1901 was taken after it was purchased by Francis M. Miller, dismantled, and moved down-river to No Business Creek before being reconstructed. France Miller owned a general store at No Business.
Another thing the historical accounts of the No Business battle disagree on is how many members of the Home Guard engaged in the fight that night. Smith placed the number of the Home Guard at 30 to 40. The New York Times placed the number at four, in addition to some citizens. Blevins placed the number at eight.
One area where the New York Times and Smith’s “Dusty Bits” agree is that two of Hutts Burke’s brothers, Benjamin Burke and James Burke, participated in the fight. Some accounts of the fight say that another of the Burke brothers, Dyad Burke, was inside the cabin and was accidentally shot and killed by Hutts Burke. However, there is no historical evidence to confirm a Dyad Burke.
An area where all of the historical accounts agree is that the attack began with the Home Guard yelling “Woolford’s Cavalry!”
Blevins wrote that the men yelled “This is Wolford’s Cavalry and the valley is full of soldiers.” The NY Times wrote that the men yelled “Woolford! Woolford!” Smith wrote that the men yelled “You are surrounded!”
Wolford’s Cavalry was a reference to Col. Frank Wolford of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry, an acclaimed fighting man who several of the Burke brothers served under during the war. Late in the war, Wolford would become critical of President Abraham Lincoln’s policy of enlisting African-American soldiers, and wound up being arrested and discharged from the military. He was elected to Congress after the war. His brother, Albert Wolford, married Minerva Marcum from Scott County. She was the sister of Julia Marcum, the Civil War heroine from Buffalo Creek. Following the war, Frank Wolford played an instrumental role in having Julia Marcum’s application for a pension approved, making her the only woman to receive a pension as a Civil War fighter.
The New York Times and Blevins wrote that Capt. Evans was the first Confederate to be gunned down in the fight. Some of his comrades were also shot dead, while others attempted to escape. Some of them were shot, and at least two seem to have drowned in the Big South Fork River, which was at flood stage.
“There were seven members of the Burke family in the house. The bed clothing and furniture were riddled with bullets, but all of the family escaped without a scratch,” Blevins wrote.
The New York Times reported that a total of five of the Confederates were killed. Blevins wrote that only two of 26 escaped. Smith wrote that seven were killed on site and Rule’s body was found near Big Island downstream several days later. Most historians place the number of Confederate dead at between seven and 11.
Houston Blevins wrote that his older sister, Annie Blevins Burke, and Margaret Miller dug a hole near the cabin and buried seven of the Confederate soldiers there. They stacked rocks on top of the grave to prevent dogs from digging them up. Steve Perkins, the great-great-grandson of Annie Blevins Burke (she married John Granville Burke, a son of Jonathan Burke, and was present at the cabin that night), notes that Houston Blevins’ account, as well as the New York Times report, closely follow the stories that he has heard handed down by family members through the years.
The Confederate mass grave is said to be near a rock wall where the Jonathan Burke cabin stood, but no one alive today knows the exact location.
In his letter to the Knoxville Journal some 85 years later, Blevins wrote of the aftermath of the battle.
“When I was a small boy, I saw the bullet holes in the building and the blood stains on the floor,” he said.
Historian Marie Hickey Davis, in “Mountain Memories,” wrote that the Burkes moved out of the house after the battle.
“Too much blood had been spilled on its floors for it to ever seem like home again,” she wrote. “After they had moved, some residents of the valley hacked out the lead balls that had been fired into the house and remelted them for new ammunition.”
The Burkes moved to what is now Charit Creek Lodge, on Station Camp Creek. Jonathan Burke died in 1775, after which Peter Burke moved his mother and some of the rest of the family to Oklahoma.
Before he left, Peter Burke sold his father’s home to George Pennington. But the house remained vacant for another 10 years, when it was purchased by Miller in 1886. The Miller family would continue to live in the home after moving it to No Business Creek, until it finally burned in the early 1900s.
There was still much heartache ahead for Scott Countians, but the worst of the war was over. The Duck Shoals Skirmish had effectively neutered the guerrilla forces that were making life miserable for the people of the river settlements. Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, of Morgan’s Raiders, had begun focusing on Ohio and Indiana by that point, wanting to take the fight to the Yankees. Most of his men surrendered, and Morgan was eventually captured and imprisoned in Ohio.
There was a bit of irony in Morgan’s invasion of the lower Midwest: it was yet another distraction for Union forces in eastern Kentucky, which meant that the Confederates’ control of East Tennessee was prolonged. But it also decimated his force and resulted in his capture, meaning that Morgan’s Raiders would not be conducting any more guerrilla raids into Scott County.
There had been a lot of personal property stolen or destroyed, and several lives lost, over the course of a little more than a year. But as of Summer 1863, with Morgan out of the picture and a band of raiding Confederate guerrillas dead and buried in a mass grave along the Big South Fork River, major guerrilla warfare in Scott County began to decline.